As we sat in the school auditorium where our church meets, I could feel my wife seething beside me. Our pastor had come to a crucial text in one of the gospels—Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As we listened to our pastor strongly (and faithfully) teach on what the Bible says about marriage and divorce, Emily became increasingly agitated. Not because of anything that was said, but what hadn’t been: what about women who are being abused?
To many, the Bible’s teaching on divorce seems too simplistic to deal with these issues. Bad counsel based on incomplete teaching leaves many women (and men) feeling trapped, with nowhere to turn when their spouses begin to spiritually, psychologically, physically or sexually abuse them. When the abuse somehow becomes their fault in the counselling session, or they’re too ashamed to even say anything at all—or don’t even know if it “counts.”
Whose fault is it?
Emily’s anger was birthed from experiences of these feelings in both her childhood and adolescent years, and her empathy for several friends who have experienced abuse in their marriages.[1. Emily has given her permission to share this.] If we’re to offer any sort of hope and encouragement to those suffering from domestic violence, we need to know what the Bible has to say to them.
This is why books like Is It My Fault? are so necessary. From its opening pages, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb offer a compassionate and biblical look at the problem of domestic violence, beginning with five words victims need to hear: It is never your fault.
No matter what kind of abuse you have experienced, there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you think that makes you deserving of it. There is no mistake you could have made and no sin you could have committed to make you deserving of violence.
You did not deserve this. And it is never your fault.
You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or “getting what you deserve.” (21)
These truths should be obvious, but for someone in an abusive relationship, they’re anything but. And truthfully, I’m not sure how obvious they are to some of us who aren’t, either. For example, we tend to look at marital problems and try to figure out how divide responsibility for those problems equally between spouses. And while this is certainly true in the average problems that come with marriage and relationships, we need to be careful to not apply this too broadly. Sometimes, it really is the problem just one person—and in the case of domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, it is always the abuser’s fault.
Although a bit of a loose example, consider the recent shootings in Santa Barbara, California, when 22-year-old Elliott Rodger stabbed three people to death, shot three more, and left 13 more injured, before killing himself. Why did he do it? Because “girls have never been attracted to me.” What surprised me with this wasn’t Rodger’s placing the blame for his yet-to-be-committed crimes on women, but because some online commenters seemed to agree, saying that if he wasn’t a virgin, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
Yeah. Someone actually said that.
What is domestic violence?
Keeping this in mind is especially important when you consider how tricky it can be to develop a concrete definition of domestic violence. You need a broad enough definition that captures the full spectrum of abuse, yet doesn’t leave every reader paranoid that they’re either being abused or an abuser themselves. How is it defined in Is It My Fault?
Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner. (57)
Despite being a little clinical, and maybe a bit lawyer-y, this definition is very strong. I believe the key word here is “pattern.” An abuser isn’t necessarily someone who says something stupid and hurtful once (again, if that were the case, we would all be abusers). An abuser is someone who makes an intentional behavior of it. This doesn’t mean that sinful and hurtful words don’t need to be dealt with (they do!); it just means we ought not label the one-time offender—depending on the nature of their offense—as being guilty of domestic violence. (There’s no such thing as being just a little stabby.)
What will God do about it?
The first several chapters of the book offer extremely necessary definitions and categories that readers may lack—beyond a definition of domestic violence, they may not know what the cycle of abuse looks like, or what types of personas exist among abusers, all of which the Holcombs provide. But the strength of the book really comes through when the authors turn to the Scriptures to show readers what God says about this issue. The picture shown here is of a God who “hates abuse, viewing it as sinful and unacceptable” (107), and “delights in rescuing the oppressed (2 Sam. 22:49)” (108).
This isn’t always easy for us to believe, though. After all, in our day-to-day circumstances—especially those in abusive situations—struggle to see God at work. They cry out asking for the Lord to deliver them, just as David did many times in the psalms. But it’s the tension we all face. Suffering and pain are real, but deliverance is real, too, even if it doesn’t come when or how we might wish it did. Despite how it may seem at times, “God is not standing idly by to watch evil run its course he will not allow evil to have the final word. His response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and recreation” (113).
What I appreciate throughout the authors’ reflections on several psalms is how they hold this tension. They don’t offer a pat “God’s in control,” although that would be easy to do. They dig into the reality of the pain, the difficulty of the circumstances. But they don’t leave us there. Instead, they redirect despair to hope, showing how we can be confident that God’s deliverance will come.
This, arguably, may be the most important practical takeaway for readers (aside from the very helpful action plan in the appendices). When the darkness won’t seem to lift[2. With apologies to John Piper], we need the hope that God is not ignoring our circumstances. That God is at work, even when we can’t see it. That His promises are still true—and because His promises are true, hope cannot be extinguished.
What will we do about it?
Is It My Fault? will provoke some strong feelings in its readers—anger that abuse happens at all, perhaps temptations toward seeking vengeance, and a longing for Jesus’ return and the coming of the new creation. What I hope it does is remind us all that none of us can stand by when abuse occurs in our homes or in our churches. In those situations, our goal should always be to bring hope into the darkness of abuse of all kinds. To humbly, earnestly and uncompromisingly call perpetrators to repentance, and allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. To offer compassion to victims and allow them to begin to experience some form of healing, while holding out the promise of the final restoration Jesus will bring when He comes to wipe every tear from every eye. This is what victims of abuse need, and by God’s grace, it’s what we can offer, if we’re willing.
Title: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence
Authors: Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
Publisher: Moody (2014)
Buy it at: Amazon